In the Belly of the Olive Oil Beast, Extra Virginity Talk with Tom Mueller

Having spent 5 years working on his first book, Extra Virginity (WW Norton, Fall 2011), Tom Mueller shares good sides as well as shady corners of the olive oil world.

After a bit of back and forth, Tom finally found time to answer a few questions I sent his way.

Here's my Extra Virginity talk with Tom Mueller.

Q: Tom, did your piece 'Slippery Business' for New Yorker in 2007 plant seeds for your book 'Extra Virginity'? 

Yes – I knew next to nothing about olive oil before writing that story, though I'd lived in Italy for over a decade.  I started looking into olive oil when I happened to see a video of olive farmers blockading a port in south Italy – Monopoli, to be precise – claiming that fake olive oil was being illegally imported.  This made me want to investigate further.

Q: Was there a moment, a person, something that incensed you, that motivated you to write this book?

Flavio Zaramella, terminally ill w/ cancer and raging at the inequities in the market.  And a hundred or more honest, determined olive farmers and millers, talking about how their customers sometimes called them thieves for charging an honest amount for their oil.

Q: The prologue 'essences' takes us to Mastri Oleari in Milan, can you describe what the organization stands for?

Highest quality olive oil and high ethical standards.

Q: Being around people like Flavio Zamarella at Mastri Oleari or with the De Carlos family where there times when you felt like you knew next to nothingabout olive oil?

Certainly the learning curve was steep at first and I find I never stop learning about olive oil – even 5 years on, every time I speak w/ an expert or visit a mill I learn something new.

Q: If you had to pick 3 of the worst odors/ characters of bad to worse 'olive' oils what would they be?

Rancid (gone off – the most frequent flaw), worm (grubs from the parasitic olive fly inside olives, ground into oil), and musty (mold)
Extra virginity
Q: How do farmers/producers who have poured their life, their soul into making 'honest' olive oil survive in a market flooded by cheap knockoffs?

They often don't.  Many are abandoning their groves, and going into bankruptcy.  Those who do make their money elsewhere (eg wine), and take a loss on their oil.  Ridiculuous situation, but omnipresent.

Q: Who are the worst offenders in pushing virgin in name only oils? Is it country specific?

The biggest industrial olive oil companies are all Iberian (Spanish & Portuguese) bottling companies. They often sell oil under Italian labels, but the oil is usually Spanish, Tunisian, etc.

Q: Why is 28.9 temperature important for professional olive oil tasters?

The aromatics in the oil become volatile and therefore enter the taster's nasal passages more easily – it's like warming brandy in a snifter.

Q: Greeks celebrated aesthetic and spiritual aspects of olive oil while Romans concentrated on its commercial possibilities, what is at the root of this difference?

Deep-rooted cultural differences:  Greeks were more oriented philosophical, scientific, hedonistic pursuits, the Romans to business, conquest, orderly human structures. 

Q: If in time of amphoras as oil receptacles one could tell what he was buying, why is it so difficult to sort the bad from the great now?

In large part because the central governments aren't taking the time and going to the expense to police the market.  At times because the big companies have strong political ties at the governmental and EU level.

Q: Are labels, first press, extra virgin, organic, meaningless and how can trust be restored?

Right now they are empty phrases.  Trust can be restored by a minimum of enforcement from above, and a lot of education from below among consumers – that's how the quality revolutions in wine, microbrew beer, coffee, artisanal cheeses, etc,  got started.

Q: How much should we expect to pay for authentic 'extra virgin' olive oil?

Wide range of prices.  Perfectly good, fresh, extra virgin  olive oil should be available at current supermarket prices (Corto Olive and COR now produce it in the states, adn Kirkland at Costco is real extra virgin).  The really grand cru estate oils, esp those made in high-price places like Tuscany, can (inc labor, shipping etc) cost $30/lit.  Much more than this however is markup by the retailer.

Q: Last, name 3 'honest' olive oils at various price points that one should try in the U.S?

See above.

Thanks Tom for your time

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